Big Racket (The) AKA Il Grande Racket (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (31st July 2022).
The Film

Rogue Cops and Racketeers

Arrow Video have released two poliziesco films by the exemplary Italian action film director Enzo G Castellari on Blu-ray: the Rogue Cops and Racketeers boxset includes Castellari’s 1976 film Il grande racket (The Big Racket) and his 1977 picture La via della droga (Heroin Busters). (I use the term poliziesco throughout this article because though the term poliziotteschi has entered popular usage amongst Anglophile fans of Italian cinema, its original use as a pejorative label renders it equally problematic in its application in both critical discourse and marketing as the equally reductive/restrictive Anglophonic appropriation of the label giallo.)

The son of filmmaker Marino Girolami, a former boxer who became a film director, Castellari established his own career as a director with a series of westerns all’italiana in the 1960s. Castellari brought a muscular sensibility to the material he was given to film; after expanding into the realm of the war film (La battaglia d'Inghilterra/Eagles over London, 1969) and the thriller (Gli occhi freddi della paura/Cold Eyes of Fear, 1971), in the mid-1970s Castellari directed a series of films that exploited the popularity amongst both Italian audiences and overseas distributors of the poliziesco all’italiana—a subgenre that filled the boots that had been left empty by the decline of the Italo-Western.

The first of these was the superlative La polizia incrimina, la legge assolva (High Crime) in 1973. This was quickly followed by the equally impressive vigilante-themed action film Il cittadino si ribella (Street Law) in 1974. Both of these featured Franco Nero in their respective lead roles. In Street Law, Castellari began experimenting overtly with the application of a similar ‘meshing’ process (blending slow-motion footage with material filmed at regular speeds, and cutting between different planes of action) that editor Louis Lombardo and director Sam Peckinpah had perfected in Peckinpah’s 1969 Western The Wild Bunch, and in many ways Castellari’s 1970s films feel like an Italian extension of Peckinpah’s cinema—both in terms of their themes, and their aesthetic.

The Big Racket and Heroin Busters are no different—though unlike Castellari’s two previous poliziesco films, these two pictures don’t feature Franco Nero, but star Fabio Testi instead. (Heroin Busters doubles its star power by featuring David Hemmings too.) Testi had entered the film business as a stuntman, and his films frequently showcased his athletic prowess. Castellari was no stranger to putting his lead actors in peril: a key sequence in Street Law features Nero flung about by a pursuing vehicle. In The Big Racket, Castellari stages a bravura setpiece in which Testi’s car is pushed from a precipice by a group of hoodlums. The car rolls down the hillside, and it’s clear that Testi (and a camera) are within the vehicle—in a reinforced cage—as it rolls over and over again before coming to a stop.

In The Big Racket, Testi plays Nicola Palmieri, a detective who takes a personal interest in eradicating an extortion racket that has been preying on local businesses, and who rape and murder the young daughter (played by Castellari’s own daughter) of a businessman who has provided evidence to the police. Frustrated by the legal system’s passivity in the face of the rackets—which borders on complicity—Testi goes outside the law in order to bring the racket to justice. To do so, he enlists the help of various citizens who have suffered at the hands of the hoodlums, embarking on a vigilante crusade against the gang’s members.

In Heroin Busters, Testi is Fabio, an undercover Interpol agent, and the partner of Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings). Mike and Fabio are set on dismantling a gang of international heroin smugglers—who have arms in Hong Kong, Colombia, and elsewhere. To cut off the head of this venomous cobra, the pair have arrived in Italy. They seek collaboration with the local police, but find them to be either incompetent or corrupt. Fabio’s deep cover places him in the gang of Gianni (Gianluigi Loffredo/Joshua Sinclair), and the stage is set for Gianni’s gang to be brought to justice.

Both of the films touch on Hot Button topics in Italy at the time. The Big Racket looks at the extortion rackets, and Heroin Busters focuses on the drug problem. Castellari’s films, and the poliziesco subgenre more generally, were (and still are) often accused of being reactionary—and The Big Racket seems to deliberately flirt with this perception. The gang of extortionists are thinly-veiled caricatures of various countercultural groups, underscoring the association of violence with youth and the ‘poisoning’ of hippie utopian ideals. At one point, the gang smash up a supermarket whilst spouting anti-capitalist rhetoric (‘Rebel against the dictatorship of consumerism. The capitalist bourgeoisie is about to end!’).

That said, however, eventually the film’s narrative reveals that this gang of wayward youths is in the payroll of a larger conglomerate of international suit-wearing gangsters. Proletarian hoodlums are revealed to be the told of ‘respectable’ middle-class gangsters, industrialists, and crooked lawyers. There’s a notable anti-global perspective in this film, with the suggestion that overseas involvement (and immigration) fosters organised crime: at one point, Nicola tells his boss that ‘They [the criminals] come from all over the world. Yugoslavia, South America, Germany. This place is up for grabs’.

The gang is an equal opportunity employer too: its most venal member is arguably Marcy (Mercella Michelangeli), who oversees the kidnapping—in a sequence that may or may not have been inspired by Jim Thompson’s 1950s novella After Dark, My Sweet—and eventual sexual assault (and murder) of the restaurant owner’s young daughter. The sense of sexual perversion and threat presented by the gang is quickly established in the film’s opening sequences, with one of the hoodlums making inappropriate remarks to the restaurant owner’s daughter, and another commenting on the lack of sexual organs on a children’s doll (whilst he is extorting the toy shop owner).

Behind the group of hoodlums is Rudy, played with sleazy glee by Gianluigi Loffredo/Joshua Sinclair: a frequent player in Castellari’s 1970s films, Loffredo’s life story would make a fascinating film in and of itself. (He wrote the novel on which the mid-80s television series Shaka Zulu was based, and worked in various non-profit roles as a medical doctor in Less Developed Countries.) Loffredo also appears in a key role in Heroin Busters, as Gianni, the leader of the drug gang that Testi’s character infiltrates.

Heroin Busters opens with a sequence that is assembled from scenes that take place in Hong Kong, Colombia, Amsterdam, New York, and Rome; these scenes show the effects of the drug trade in these cities. Again, internationalism and the global marketplace have led to dissent and violence, facilitating the greed of criminal gangs who know how to exploit trade routes and local markets for heroin. The end users in the drug game are shown to be conservative, middle-class university students: the other links in the chain (those smuggling the drugs) are depicted as far less privileged.

Testi is an undercover cop, introduced in Hong Kong: however, though even the most casual viewer will no doubt guess this ‘twist’, the film doesn’t officially reveal Testi’s identity as a cop until almost halfway through its story. The drugs trade, the film suggests, is utterly venal and exploitative. Along the way, we are presented with various sidebars in the narrative, including the overdose of a young female student, Anna, which reminds us of the human cost of the trade in smuggling and distributing heroin (and other drugs).

Over and over in both films, the audience is told that the police’s hands are tied by the law (‘La polizia incrimina, la legge assolva’, as per the title of Castellari’s first poliziesco), that good citizens need to take a stand against hoodlums (‘A man who’s not able to defend himself ceases to be a man’, a character in The Big Racket notes), that internationalism facilitates organised crime (either via the drugs trade or the rackets), that immigration is a Bad Thing, that cops have to abide by the law whilst criminals don’t, and that old school criminals had codes and ethics whilst the new breed of bandits act without either. To combat crime necessitates stepping outside the law and embodying the values of a vigilante, meeting ne’er-do-wells on their own ideological turf.

Castellari’s staging of the action is superb. Heroin Busters, in particular, develops to a climax which sees Fabio Testi’s character narrowly-escape from one shootout to another—from a building site to a deserted subway station, from a factory to a site of historical ruins. The sequence features numerous impressively-staged moments and stunt sequences, such as Testi sliding down an escalator bannister—a motorcycle being ridden in pursuit—whilst shooting one of the seemingly endless stream of members of Gianni’s syndicate. It’s essentially a bravura extended chase sequence, of the kind that would be praised highly by fans of Hong Kong action movies about ten years later, via the likes of Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. (The fact that until fairly recently, Heroin Busters and the other poliziesco films didn’t attract a similar level of praise, is presumably largely owing to issues with their distribution in Anglophonic countries.)


Contained on separate discs, both Heroin Busters and The Big Racket are presented in 1080p, using the AVC codec, and in the films’ original theatrical aspect ratio—which is the same in both cases, 1.85:1.

From the menu on both discs, the viewer can select to watch the respective film via either an ‘English version’ or the ‘Italian version’. Selecting the former leads to a presentation of the English-dubbed version (of the respective movie) with English-language titles sequences; selecting the latter leads to a presentation of the Italian-language version of the film (with English subtitles) and Italian-language titles sequences. Language and subtitle options can’t be changed ‘on the fly’: instead, the viewer must use the pop-up menu.

Both films are uncut. The Big Racket runs for 104:09 mins; Heroin Busters runs for 93:36 mins. (In the case of both films, the English and Italian versions have the same running time.) In the case of The Big Racket, which was rejected by the BBFC when submitted for cinema classification in 1977, previous BBFC cuts (to one of the rape scenes, made when the film was released on DVD by VIPCO in 2003) have been waived and the film is now entirely uncut.

Per Arrow’s copy, both presentations are based on new 2k restorations that use the original negative. Both films were shot in 35mm and on colour stock.

Both films are presented excellently. Contrast levels are particularly impressive, with inky blacks and subtle gradation within the mid-tones. There’s lots of staging in depth within the films’ photography, with careful use of lighting to draw the viewer’s eye into image, and the pleasing contrast levels in these HD presentations of both films assists this. Colours are predominantly naturalistic throughout, though Heroin Busters features some slightly more expressionistic use of colour within its palette in various sequences. In these presentations of both films, colours are consistent and deep. The level of fine detail is impressive throughout also, especially in close-ups of objects and actor’s faces. There is no evidence of harmful digital tinkering, and the presentations retain the structure of 35mm film. The encodes to disc present no problems, and help to ensure that this grain structure is captured well. The result, in the case of both films, is an excellent, filmlike viewing experience.

The Big Racket

Heroin Busters

NB. Full-sized screengrabs from the presentations of both films can be found at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Both films feature the option of either English or Italian audio (presented, in both instances, via DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks). As noted above, the choice of English or Italian audio is selected via choosing either the ‘English version’ or ‘Italian version’ of the respective film from the disc menu. In the case of both films, the English version has an accompanying optional English subtitle track for the Hard of Hearing, and the Italian version has an English subtitle track that translates the Italian dialogue. (With The Big Racket, despite the presence of Vincent Gardenia within the cast, the Italian version is arguably the most impactful, in the case of Heroin Busters the English track works the best—owing to the significant role played by David Hemmings. Intriguingly, the English dub for Heroin Busters features a level of profanity within the language that is atypical for Italian productions of this period.)

Both English and Italian tracks for both pictures are perfectly serviceable. Though mono and not ‘showy’ by any means, they demonstrate excellent range and depth—particularly in the use of Goblin’s driving score for Heroin Busters. Sound effects (eg, gunshots) have depth and resonance. The subtitles are easy to read and free from errors.


- The Big Racket (104:09)

- Audio commentary with Adrian J Smith & David Flint
. Flint and Simon talk enthusiastically about The Big Racket, discussing Castellari’s ‘no-nonsense’ approach to filmmaking. They reflect on Testi’s character’s role in the film—suggesting that he is a ‘rounded’ character who makes a number of mis-steps within the narrative. They emphasise the relationship between the film’s plot and some of the social issues facing Italy during the mid-1970s—and also frame The Big Racket within a discussion of vigilantism in cinema, connecting this to Castellari’s earlier picture Street Law.

- ‘The Years of Racketeering’ (30:15)
. In a new interview, Castellari talks about The Big Racket. He is full of praise for the picture, and reflects on the circumstances in which he found himself when he directed it—following his work on High Crime. He suggests the topic of extortion rackets was very topical in 1976. Castellari talks about the writing of the picture, and says that he always tried to put his own ‘stamp’ on a script, in order to adapt it to his style of filmmaking.

Discussing the casting of The Big Racket, Castellari reflects on Testi’s screen presence, and talks about the other projects on which the pair collaborated. He also talks about the other key roles in the film, and his use of his own daughter in the film (as Stefania, the daughter of the bar owner, who is raped and killed by the gang). Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘Violent Times’ (18:59)
. In another new interview, Fabio Testi discusses his work on the film. The actor reflects on his first meetings with Castellari, who he says was an art lover and very down-to-earth. He highlights the film’s relevance for some of the social issues facing Italy during the mid-1970s. (These issues, he suggests, are still present in Italian society and cinema today.) Testi also reflects on the peak period of Italian filmmaking, which he suggests facilitated greater risk-taking by producers. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘Angel Face for a Tough Guy’ (43:20)
. Actor Massimo Vanni speaks about his work with Castellari in another new interview. Vanni reveals that he is related to Castellari: the two are second cousins. He talks about the films on which they collaborated, and considers his relationships with some of the other members of the cast of The Big Racket. Vanni also talks at length about the filming of some of the film’s action sequences and stunt choreography—particularly the scene in which Testi’s car is pushed off a precipice by the gang. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘King of Movieola’ (27:53)
. In another new interview, editor Gianfranco Amicucci discusses his work as a film editor. He talks about the process of editing a film in some detail, and how the room for trial and error is much larger since digital editing has become normalised over the past 20 years. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘The Great Racket’ (44:41)
. DJ Lovely Jon talks about the careers of composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, talking about their careers as hit-makers as well as their work for films. There’s a clear sense her of Lovely Jon’s enthusiasm for the De Angelis brothers’ body of work.

- Theatrical Trailer (3:55)

- Image Galleries: Posters (4 images); Italian Fotobusta (8 images); German Lobby Cards (22 images); German Pressbook (9 images).

- Heroin Busters (93:36)

- Audio commentary by Adrian J Smith & David Flint
. Smith and Flint offer another enthusiastic commentary track. They discuss some of the differences between this film and The Big Racket, suggesting that Heroin Busters is a much-more action-oriented film. They reflect on the cast, discussing in some detail the career of David Hemmings; and they discuss the score by Goblin. It’s a good-humoured track, with some amusing sidebars (for example, about the roles of toupees in 1970s cinema).

- ‘Endless Pursuit’ (24:00)
. In a new interview, recorded in the same session as the Big Racket interview on disc one of this set, Enzo G Castellari talks about Heroin Busters. He discusses some of the research that was conducted in order to make the scenes of drug taking as authentic as possible, and reflects on the international setting of the film’s story, which necessitated the crew traveling the world. He also discusses working with the cast, including David Hemmings—who Castellari says was much more athletic than the director expected him to be. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘Drug Squad’ (16:03)
. This is an extension of the interview with Fabio Testi that is included on disc one of this set. Testi connects Heroin Busters to the prevalence of drug addiction within Italian society in the mid-1970s, and talks about the origins of the story in an anecdote about an undercover mission told to Castellari by an ex-policeman—the ‘Italian Serpico’. Testi also disucsses at length working with David Hemmings, who he praises enormously. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘The Drug Dealer’ (21:05)
. This interview with actor Massimo Vanni focuses on Vanni’s work on Heroin Busters—which Vanni, a health freak, says was incredibly far away from his real lifestyle at the time. However, like Testi he says that drugs were a big issue in Italian society during the 1970s, and praises Castellari’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘How They Killed Italian Cinema’ (20:12)
. Gianfranco Amicucci, the film editor, considers some of the challenges involved in shooting and editing Heroin Busters—particularly the climactic confrontation between two light aircraft. Amicucci also talks generally about some of the reasons he believes Italian cinema has been stifled over the last 20 or 30 years. Specifically, he points the finger at Berlusconi’s government and the changing media landscape. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘A Cop on the Set’ (23:51)
. In this new interview, retired policeman and criminologist Nicola Longo—whose storied inspired the narrative of this film—talks about his work as a policeman, and discusses its relationship with the representation of policework in the cinema. Italian, with English subtitles.

- ‘The Eardrum Busters’ (38:40)
. DJ Lovely Jon offers an appraisal of the work of Goblin.

- Theatrical Trailer (3:45).

- Image Galleries: Posters (4 images); Italian Pressbook (7 images); German Pressbook (5 images); German Lobby Cards (18 images); Spanish Lobby Cards (13 images).


The Italian poliziesco film has had something of a cult revival in the digital home video age—which is very welcome, given how impressive some of the key poliziesco films are. Castellari’s poliziesco pictures are particularly good: they feature some muscular action and themes, and touch on key issues in Italian society during the 1970s. What’s particularly notable about Castellari’s poliziesco films—and some of his later productions too—is the manner in which they extend the editing techniques pioneered (in mainstream cinema, at least) within Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, with their ‘meshing’ of slow-motion with regular footage, and multiple planes of action. The films are also more complex, thematically, than they have often been claimed to be: superficially, they can seem quite reactionary, in a cultural sense, but beneath this they highlight inequalities in society—the villains in The Big Racket, for example, may seem to be a group of youthful countercultural ne’erdowells, but ultimately these are revealed to be simply the agents of corrupt figures of ‘respectability’ (industrialists, lawyers, and such). The films espouse a deliriously cynical, hardboiled worldview.

Arrow’s Blu-ray releases of these two Castellari poliziesco films, both starring Fabio Testi, are outstanding. The presentations of both films are superb: both discs contain remarkable, pleasing and filmlike presentations of their respective main features. These main presentations are accompanied by some superb special features. The commentaries by Adrian Smith and David Flint are amusing and fan-driven, but the interviews with Castellari, Testi, and other key members of the personnel involved in this productions, are astoundingly good. Unlike Studiocanal’s recent, deeply frustrating release of Castellari’s High Crime (which contains a heavily cut presentation), Arrow’s Blu-ray boxset containing The Big Racket and Heroin Busters gets an unreserved recommendation from us. Bravo, Arrow!

Please click to enlarge.
The Big Racket

Heroin Busters


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